Prosper Waco is misunderstood by some in our community. This is not too surprising . . . it’s barely a year old.

Organizations are oftentimes best understood by what they have accomplished. Prosper Waco has only shepherded one project so far: Project Link, funded by the Rapoport Foundation. Project Link currently has three counselors located inside La Vega and University High Schools that will, for four years, provide peer and teacher support systems and, second, student strategies for post-secondary and/or workforce success.

Perhaps the best way to explain why McLennan County should spend $100,000 next year to support Prosper Waco is to relate why my own small family foundation has pledged $5,000 for each of the next three years to this group. While our contribution is not large compared to the request made to our county, it is large for us.

First, we like the “bottom-up” design of this collective initiative. Programs will be developed utilizing the “worker bees in the trenches” who daily, either on a vocational or volunteer basis, work within the health care, educational or financial security arenas.

Second, Prosper Waco programs must address agreed-upon benchmarks against which the success/failure of each program will be measured. Programs that do not “move the needle” will not be funded in subsequent years. This insures significant accountability for our investment. Funding “backbone” (or administration) is not something many like to do, but it is necessary in order to get the job done. Prosper Waco cannot rely solely on volunteers.

Prosper Waco is a community-wide initiative involving dozens of organizations and hundreds of participants. Prosper Waco will not supplant the efforts of any of the 501(c)(3) organizations that currently exist. Mission Waco, the Salvation Army, the United Way — and many others — have done a fine job within our community for many decades. But, as local civic leaders and pastors Jimmy Dorrell and Kenneth Moerbe constantly remind us, people in poverty still exist in unconscionable numbers in our community. It is impossible to have too many of our citizens working on these problems.

I do not believe that poverty will ever be eradicated. But I do believe that there are many folks who want to do better, yet have no concept of even how to develop a plan to improve their situation. These are the folks Prosper Waco hopes to reach with supplemental (and not duplicative) programs that utilize coordinated efforts of multiple organizations, ones that now have a venue to start discussing common problems/solutions. I believe this is a case where the sum of the parts will be greater than the whole.

The recent Upjohn Institute study conducted for our city reported we have more than 1,900 citizens in the 16-24 age group who are “disengaged” — they’re neither working nor in school. These citizens will provide challenges for our workforce, our health care system and our criminal justice system for many years. Doesn’t it make sense to become more proactive by addressing the challenges faced by this age group before they become a burden to both themselves and taxpayers?

Increased government assistance is not what we have in mind. We want to help people become tax-paying citizens if they are willing to help themselves. This example is the subject of one of Prosper Waco’s 10 working groups that began meeting this summer to develop solutions for their individually chosen goals. More than one hundred community members are involved in these working groups. You can learn about them on our website, ProsperWaco.org.

Coordination is the key

Prosper Waco does not expect to replace any local organization nor does it plan to act as a foundation itself. We will aid our working groups as they attempt to find income sources/grants to fund their projects. We expect that grants that are received through the Prosper Waco initiative will go to organizations in the community to support direct service work that is aligned with the goals of the initiative. We aim to enlarge the pie, not take a bite out of it.

Some might fault the Prosper Waco board for budgeting more than most nonprofits for administration. The board hired some top-notch people (two graduated from college here and wanted to stay in Waco). Most businesses spend more than 60 percent of their budget on personnel — the figure is 73 percent at the Family Health Center, which has enormous impact for good in our community. We performed a national search for our CEO (funded by the Cooper Foundation). Our search firm convinced us that we needed to pay market rate for that position. We didn’t want to train someone who might later use us as a stepping stone to greener pastures, so we pay what that firm suggested. I’m proud that we hired the only local applicant — after multiple interviews with each of the four finalists.

Our county has the opportunity to provide leadership if it joins Prosper Waco’s efforts. Private/public partnerships like Prosper Waco have already been successful in other U.S. communities. Foundations seem to favor groups like this. We have already secured two significant national grants and many more opportunities exist as we move forward. Showing that the city, the county and all our major foundations support our efforts increases our chances for success as we compete for additional funds.

Likewise, you have an opportunity to help us “move the needle.” If you find something that intrigues you on our website, give us a call and climb aboard.

Longtime business leader Bill Clifton is a founding board member of Prosper Waco. He is president of the Waco Business League.